When I am at the post office in my little town in the Connecticut (and I’ve been there often the last couple of weeks), I notice that when my turn comes and I step up to the counter, the person behind me in line vectors off to the side so that they can see the postal employee serving me.
In fact, I think they are actually staring at the postal employee. I am not sure what the motive is, but some of these people give off a tang of self righteousness. It’s as if they are insisting on their right to see and be seen.
They must see the transaction happening at the counter because, hey, it’s standing between them and service. So they have to make sure it’s all going to plan. They want to scrutinize the postal employee in case they are slow or incompetent. And I think some people come to the post office with the assumption that things will go badly, that the place is a ship of fools, a den of incompetence.
And post patrons need to be seen because, well, this is America and we will be eclipsed by no one. We will not wait quietly well someone dares waste our time. We will be counted. We will be seen. That’s where that self righteousness comes in especially, as if people are saying, “Don’t you know who I am?” Because we are not just time poor, we are time proud. No one is going to waste our time. That would be diminishing and Americans will not be diminished.
The contract of American life is that we will be given our due, that no man or woman can make plausible and enduring claims to be greater than ourselves. Oh, someone might flash by in an expensive car. We might even accept this as a legitimate act of superordination with our own fleeting envy or admiration. And certainly certain groups systematically find themselves on the short end of the bargain. Esteem is withheld from people of certain ages, classes, genders, and ethnicities. But by and large and in principle, every American has the right to acknowledgement and respect uneclipsed by anyone else. You may not be serving me, the notion seems to be, but by God you will not neglect me.
So why would anyone imagine that the Post Office was a place likely to deny this fundamental right? Is it because it’s a big bureaucracy that provokes this suspicion? Is it because it is a government institution? Is it because the post office is a place that threatens someone to make us all submit to the tyranny of rules that constrain what we can or can’t send through the mails? Is it that in an age of Etsy customization, we are obliged, with some exceptions, to use uniform stamps in uniform denominations? Talk about being elipsed. Why, the place feels like a conspiracy designed to drive us into eclipse and perhaps obscure our very selfhood! The nerve. Don’t they know who we are?
It’s lovely to see the way postal employees solve this social problem, by narrowing their focus so that it’s a tiny field occupied only by them and the person at the counter. They have found a way to shut out the presumptuous next in line. And sometimes, I like to prolong this delicious bond by asking time consuming questions like, “Do you have a 63 cent stamp? What about a 64 cent stamp? Ok, what about…” Just kidding. I wouldn’t dare.